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Rick

Urcuqui, Ecuador
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  • Butcher’s Crossing

  • By: John Williams
  • Narrated by: Anthony Heald
  • Length: 10 hrs and 21 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 224
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 202
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 203

In the 1870s, Will Andrews, fired up by Emerson to seek "an original relation to nature," drops out of Harvard and heads west. He washes up in Butcher's Crossing, a small Kansas town full of restless men looking for ways to make money and ways to waste it. One of these men regales Will with tales of the immense buffalo herds hidden away in the Colorado Rockies and convinces him to join an expedition to track them down.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Another prose painting by a master.

  • By Ron on 02-12-17

Western with an Edge

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-17-18

When John Williams was writing “Butcher’s Crossing” around 1960, he said that “the subject of the West has undergone a process of mindless stereotyping.” This novel was his response.

The story has a simple framework, really: a callow young man entranced by Emersonian philosophy leaves Boston and Harvard to seek adventure in the West. In the minuscule settlement of Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, he finds someone to take him on a buffalo hunt, and a four-man ensemble sets out for a secret valley in the Rocky Mountains where one of the last great herds of buffalo still roams.

The party comprises the young man, Will Andrews; Miller, a veteran buffalo hunter; Charley Hoge, a Bible-toting alcoholic (who for some reason, or no reason, is always referred to by his full name); and Fred Schneider, who can skin a fallen buffalo every five minutes.

The animals are there, all right, and in a few frenzied weeks the hunters kill them all, stacking the hides and leaving the carcasses to rot in the sun. They estimate they have some 4500 hides. Then a bitter mountain blizzard traps them so suddenly that they barely have time to fashion a cramped shelter (of buffalo hides) to survive the long and brutal winter.

Triumph eventually turns to tragedy, and the survivors return to Butcher’s Crossing to find that in their absence, the world has changed dramatically.

It’s an excellent, rugged, realistic story with an unexpected ending. The characters are hard-edged realists and not particularly heroic. Anthony Heald’s superb narration is lively as always.

There are times when it seems like the Western, and not just this one, could be defined as “A form of literature distinguished by the use of the term “spat”—the past tense of spit—every couple of minutes.” Nonetheless, this trailblazing novel led the way for others that eschewed movie-star glamor in favor of a more realistic portrayal of what the 1870s frontier must have been like.

  • Usher's Passing

  • By: Robert R. McCammon
  • Narrated by: Scott Aiello
  • Length: 16 hrs and 54 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 133
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 122
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 123

Ever since Edgar Allan Poe looted a family's ignoble secret history for his classic story "The Fall of the House of Usher", living in the shadow of that sick dynasty has been an inescapable scourge for generations of Usher descendants. But not for horror novelist Rix Usher. Years ago he fled the isolated family estate of Usherland in the menacing North Carolina hills to pursue his writing career. He promised never to return. But his father's impending death has brought Rix back home to assume the role of Usher patriarch - and face his worst fears.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Usher’s Passing: Enjoyable McCammon Novel

  • By B.E.P. on 07-09-18

Beyond Poe

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-12-18

It’s easy to forget that Edgar Allan Poe’s classic “The Fall of the House of Usher” was a compact short story, just over 7000 words. This 17-hour novel is not so much a retelling as a sequel, set generations later and moved from somewhere around Boston to North Carolina. Have no fear: the family is as weird as ever. And the house itself—The Lodge—is a massive, ominous place, a living thing that is clearly evil with its powerful smell of rot and decay. It’s the stench of death.

Other than a historical appearance by Poe himself in the early going (and a fissure down the side of The Lodge, and the patriarch’s hypersensitivity to light and sound), this bears little resemblance to the original. It is all new and imaginative, featuring the likes of the Pumpkin Man, the Mountain King, and a hideous black panther known by the locals as Greedy Guts. But there are worse things. Far worse.

Mystery piles upon mystery, spreading to the Usher family, its lineage, and the hillbillies who populate the surrounding mountains—and whose superstitions are revealed to be based on something more than folklore. Children disappear. There are monsters, and monstrous people. Characters are like shape-shifters who are never what they appear to be for long.

The story steadily gains momentum from a deceptively slow-ish start, moving from the merely peculiar to the abjectly supernatural and terrifying.

McCammon employs a neat trick, used sparingly, where present-day events give way to vivid flashbacks, outside the observations and dialogue of contemporary characters. You barely realize it’s happening, but it serves to reinforce the history of this bizarre family and its impact on their present tribulations.

Scott Aiello delivers an energetic reading, handling many voices with alacrity. He has a habit of dropping odd pauses in mid-sentence, but makes up for it with a lively rendering of a tale that Poe would approve.

  • Summer of Night

  • By: Dan Simmons
  • Narrated by: Dan John Miller
  • Length: 22 hrs and 2 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 1,887
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,731
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 1,734

It’s the summer of 1960 and in the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, five twelve-year-old boys are forging the powerful bonds that a lifetime of change will not break. From sunset bike rides to shaded hiding places in the woods, the boys’ days are marked by all of the secrets and silences of an idyllic childhood. But amid the sun-drenched cornfields, their loyalty will be pitilessly tested.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Go Ahead...Take A Stroll Down Horror Lane

  • By Jan on 10-31-14

Terror at a Snail’s Pace

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-30-18

A crumbling, condemned schoolhouse, scheduled for demolition. A mute WWI doughboy who wanders the woods in boots and puttees. The battered and malodorous truck from the rendering works that could have a mind of its own. A massive, ancient bell – that may or may not exist.

In the summer of 1960, a tightly-knit group of young schoolboys will fixate on solving the mystery of their dreams. But dreams turn into nightmares when people start dying, and the dead come to life and glow in the dark.

This story takes a long time to develop, with what seem to be wildly unrelated clues separated by vast expanses of prose. It does all begin to converge, but after listening to more than half of the 22 hours it just couldn't sustain my interest. I prefer unabridged books, but not unedited ones. This one probably needs to choose between terror and nostalgia, because it does both of them well.

While I very much like Dan John Miller’s narration, he doesn’t do many kids' voices artfully or convincingly. (Neither could I.) And the recording is weirdly equalized, sometimes with too much sibilance and other times too little, alternating between splatter and lisp. Not fair to the narrator, and distracting from the story.

  • The Song of Achilles

  • A Novel
  • By: Madeline Miller
  • Narrated by: Frazer Douglas
  • Length: 11 hrs and 15 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 5,219
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 4,857
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 4,842

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Wasn't Expecting to Like It- BOY! was I wrong!!

  • By susan on 06-11-14

Legend Reimagined

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-20-18

Mythology lends itself to reinterpretation, and while scholars might howl at any deviation from the authority of The Iliad, Madeline Miller’s novel is a refreshing take on ancient history. It is a beautifully written account of gods and kings, mythical cities, love and war.

The story is told in the voice of Patroclus, an ostracized prince who meets the half-god Achilles when both are young boys. After a time in school, they are sent into the mountains to be taught everything from philosophy to medicine by a Centaur—something of an Obi-Wan Kenobi figure in this case. Patroclus and Achilles grow from unlikely friends to lovers and inseparable companions while the Trojan War looms, and with it Achilles’ foreboding destiny.

As the siege of Troy stretches for a decade and then rushes toward a climax, events overtake the warriors with dizzying speed.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that all the characters have died after thousands of years, but when they do, the story continues, bridging life and death in a deeply moving and mesmerizing conclusion.

Frazer Douglas does not recite so much as confide the narration. The individual players are expertly done, and especially the gravelly tone of the sea nymph, Thetis, the embittered and conflicted mother of Achilles, of whose voice Patroclus says, “I had expected chimes, not the grinding of rocks in the surf.”

An interesting style note: The whole book is written in the present tense.

  • The Big Sky

  • By: A. B. Guthrie
  • Narrated by: Kevin Foley
  • Length: 14 hrs and 23 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 272
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 248
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 247

Originally published more than 50 years ago, The Big Sky is the first of A. B. Guthrie's epic adventure novels of America's vast frontier. The Big Sky introduces Boone Caudill, Jim Deakins, and Dick Summers, three of the most memorable characters in western American literature. Traveling the Missouri River from St. Louis to the Rockies, these frontiersmen live as trappers, traders, guides, and explorers.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • amazing adventure and mountain man tales!

  • By TJ on 03-29-16

Shows its Age

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-08-18

The first of Guthrie’s six novels about the Oregon trail and mountain men was published in 1947. The writing is somewhat stilted and dated—not surprising, as it was written 70 years ago. The narration, too, seems a trifle didactic, although Foley does a diverse variety of voices distinctly.

The story is a good one but takes hours to develop, and for me it became tiresome.

  • Empire of Blue Water

  • By: Stephan Talty
  • Narrated by: John H. Mayer
  • Length: 13 hrs and 25 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 691
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 500
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 496

He challenged the greatest empire on earth with a ragtag bunch of renegades and brought it to its knees. This is the real story of the pirates of the Caribbean. Henry Morgan, a 20-year-old Welshman, crossed the Atlantic in 1655, hell-bent on making his fortune. Over the next three decades, his exploits in the Caribbean became legendary. His daring attacks on the mighty Spanish empire on land and at sea determined the fates of kings and queens, and his victories helped shape the destiny of the New World.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Morbid Terrorists?

  • By Jack on 11-11-08

Legendary Buccaneers

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-01-18

Henry Morgan was only 20 when he came to the Caribbean, and in his lifetime saw—and led—the rise of piracy that terrorized the Spanish Empire and shaped the future of the New World, and then collapsed as quickly as it appeared.

Stephan Talty’s highly approachable history is peppered with surprises. The buccaneers called themselves “The Brethren,” and more often than not fought their battles on land like a terrestrial army. Ships were for transportation, often including canoes and small fishing boats, while engagements at sea like those in the movies were the exception.

They were a vicious lot of drunks and murderers who, inspired by techniques of the Spanish Inquisition, were also inventive practitioners of torture. They lived to plunder, squander their money on debauchery, and return to the hunt. There were also generous benefits, including a share of the loot plus bonuses for sustaining injuries, or for exceptional bravery.

But they never aspired to colonize what they conquered. “As soon as the dream of great riches evaporated, the buccaneer army atomized into a thousand separate pieces. The pirates would never threaten the systems they destabilized with a nation-state of their own. Because they had no faith, no laws, no institutions that would hold them together beyond the next raid.”

They were very, very good at the business of raiding.

John H. Mayer is a pro who delivers a warm narration with an audible twinkle in his eye. I was expecting something more like an adventure novel, but this history quickly grew on me.

  • Luxor: Book of Past Lives

  • By: Julie Bettendorf
  • Narrated by: Barry Shannon
  • Length: 8 hrs and 51 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    3.5 out of 5 stars 2
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 2
  • Story
    3.5 out of 5 stars 2

Set against the rich tapestry of ancient Egypt, Luxor: Book of Past Lives is the story of Nebamun and Iramen, two brothers who are embalmers in Egypt during the era of the boy king, Tutankhamun. It is their duty to prepare the many bodies of the dead who land on their embalming table for a journey into the afterlife. Paralleling this ancient tale is the story of two different brothers, Abdul and Karim, who make their living by robbing the ancient tombs of Egypt in the late 1800s, when the theft and sale of artifacts was at its peak.

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Book of the Dead

  • By Rick on 08-22-18

Book of the Dead

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-22-18

Devotees of the mysteries of ancient Egypt will find this to be a highly accessible rendering of its culture, while readers of crime novels are treated to the underworld of tomb robbers. The plot points nimbly leap back and forth between the two timelines over a span of more than 30 centuries.

Nebamun and Iramen are brothers who are priests and embalmers during the era of the boy king, Tutankhamun, around 1323 B.C. Abdul and Karim are also brothers: dedicated to robbing the tombs of Egypt to feed a 19th century tourist trade. Both stories are lively and informative ones, especially as they begin increasingly to intersect.

The book can be grisly at times, not only for descriptions of the embalming process, but for scenes of violence and torture. But not gratuitously so; life in both eras could be brutal.

Barry Shannon delivers a solid narration and plays all the major characters well.

One curious, minor grammatical note: the verb “lay” is incorrectly used instead of “lie” almost every time it occurs.

  • At Home

  • A Short History of Private Life
  • By: Bill Bryson
  • Narrated by: Bill Bryson
  • Length: 16 hrs and 38 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 4,654
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 3,178
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 3,169

Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.”

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Another wonderful Bryson

  • By Tina on 10-23-10

Things You Never Knew

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-18-18

Bill Bryson makes any subject fascinating. And this book has subjects beyond counting, all illustrated by his own home, a drafty old Victorian parsonage in England: Architecture, etymology, inventions, household pests, locust plagues, snooty nobility, the misery of servants, famines, poisonous wallpaper, the history of cement, the evolution of the dinner fork.

If the mischievous Bryson cooked up this book idea just so he could work at home, it makes no difference. And if I’d ever had a history teacher this captivating, my grades would have been transformed.

  • Dragon Teeth

  • A Novel
  • By: Michael Crichton
  • Narrated by: Scott Brick, Sherri Crichton
  • Length: 7 hrs and 40 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 3,232
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 2,996
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 2,990

The year is 1876. Warring Indian tribes still populate America's western territories, even as lawless gold-rush towns begin to mark the landscape. In much of the country, it is still illegal to espouse evolution. Against this backdrop two monomaniacal paleontologists pillage the Wild West, hunting for dinosaur fossils while surveilling, deceiving, and sabotaging each other in a rivalry that will come to be known as the Bone Wars.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Good book but technical issues

  • By mikeinLA on 06-07-17

Bones of the Old West

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-05-18

William Johnson is a freshman at Yale in 1876, a patrician rich kid who goes West for the summer on a bet. He promptly becomes a pawn in the lifelong feud between two paleontologists—actual historical figures—and is in for the adventure of a lifetime, if he survives it. The frontier is a vast and dangerous place, as evidenced by the massacre of Gen. Custer at the Little Bighorn when the bone-hunters’ expedition is barely underway.

Michael Crichton had a screenwriter’s flair for pacing and surprise, and while the novel he began in 1974 is not his finest blockbuster, it was a welcome addition to the oeuvre when published posthumously in 2017.

He regularly sneaks in ominous portents, such as “He would have reason to ponder this statement later.” (pregnant pause) It gives the feel of a melodrama of the Victorian Era, which it was. It's a fun, engaging listen.

Masterfully read by Scott Brick.

  • Out of Africa

  • By: Isak Dineson
  • Narrated by: Julie Harris
  • Length: 2 hrs and 57 mins
  • Abridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 914
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 821
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 821

Danish countess Karen Blixon, known as Isak Dineson, ran a coffee plantation in Kenya in the years when Africa remained a romantic and formidable continent to most Europeans. Out of Africa is her account of her life there, with stories of her respectful relationships with the Masai, Kikuyu, and Somali natives who work on her land; the European friends who visit her; and the imposing permanence of the wild, high land itself.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • I did not expect to enjoy this

  • By Tyler Tanner on 10-08-14

Like Poetry

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-02-18

The abridged version is an ethereal meditation upon a time long gone, when European colonists preserved a genteel existence in Africa, sometimes overwhelmed by the forces of nature, and in a kind of fragile coexistence with the natives. It was a time when Kenya was called British East Africa, and the British Empire was waning.

It’s a sad epitaph for a lost world, but one that couldn’t last. Beautifully written, and sensitively, at times passionately read by the late Julie Harris.